Tag Archives: Montaigne

Marginalia, no.153

Those plangent musical awakenings in his childhood had a lot to answer for.

~ Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne…

Bakewell summarizes the critique of Jules Michelet.  Montaigne’s father ordered that his son should only be awakened in the morning by the sound of soft music.  How much different, I wonder, would the Essays have been if Montaigne were roused each day by an alarm clock or, as I often was, by a father uncommonly skilled in mimicking the sound of a kazoo playing reveille.

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The Experience of Being Human

I honor those bloggers – like the indefatigable Patrick Kurp – cast in the heroic mold, who manage to publish something fresh and vigorous every day.  I am not one of them.  These days the demon Work devours my energies and what little I can hide away needs careful preserving for the nourishment of my other, better-loved demon, Novel.  I still manage to read, but reading refreshes rather than consumes.  Reading is to writing what indulgent recuperation at an alpine spa is to the wasting fevers, writhings and bilateral expulsions of a near-mortal illness.

My son and I are presently forging through Mervyn Peake’s adventurous Letters from a Lost Uncle.  And on the train or after midnight, when the machinery of my mind has burnt up all lubrication and I couldn’t write (or re-write) another goddamn sentence if the lives of a dozen day-old puppies depended on it, I pick up Sarah Bakewell’s luxuriously subtitled How to Live: A Biography of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.  Of course, no sooner had I ordered the book from the UK and paid my international shipping fees than its stateside release was announced for later this month.

Poor souls who have spent any time whatever in my virtual company will know that I am a great admirer of Montaigne.  I am not as much an admirer of Ms Bakewell, but my complaints with her method or style (or subtitle) are mostly trivial and her book has been a pleasure.  Early in an opening chapter – and periodically throughout her 350 pages – Bakewell describes the queer sensation so many readers experience on first acquaintance with Montaigne: the sense that he is writing about them as much as himself.  In his frank self-portraiture and embrace of amor fati, the happy acceptance of all the foibles and inadequacies that make him as an individual different than anyone else, Montaigne somehow helps us to better see what we all have in common, ‘the experience of being human.’

I don’t know that he was any great lover of Montaigne, but I’m reminded of a passage from Thoreau’s journals (February 12, 1851) describing the discovery – or rediscovery – of such communion:

I think that we are not commonly aware that man is our contemporary, – that in this strange, outlandish world, so barren, so prosaic, fit not to live in but merely to pass through, that even here so divine a creature as man does actually live.  Man, the crowning fact, the god we know.  While the earth supports so rare an inhabitant, there is somewhat to cheer us.  I think that the standing miracle to man is man.

Let’s not wax too poetical about this.  Montaigne accomplishes something remarkable in the Essays by his honesty, his curiosity and his habitual suspension of judgment, but thankfully he’s no magician, no demigod.  The point is his – our own – humanity.  The waking from intellectual isolation and the reminder, by a punch in the gut as often as a caress, that we all share and partake in a single, immutably mutable human nature – that is, to my mind, the point.

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Marginalia, no.150

When I grow up, I shall be two men.

~ Julian Hawthorne, as a child

Wee Julian was trying to impress his father with how burly and mannish he would become.  But this is exactly what happens when we grow up: we split in two.  Montaigne, improving on St Paul, put it this way: ‘We are, I know not how, double within ourselves, with the result that we do not believe what we believe, and we cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn.’

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Marginalia, no.142

I agreed with what was said, but I did not believe a word of it.

~ V.S. Pritchett, A Cab at the Door

A possibly helpful distinction.  Assent is sufficient if the intent is to convince (oneself or others) of solidarity; it is social lubrication.  Belief, on the other hand, is something more.  I wonder if we can ever decide for ourselves what we will believe.  Perhaps we only discover and rediscover it.  It may be, as Montaigne says, that we vary as much in ourselves as we do from others, but I’m struck sometimes by my own inevitability.

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Marginalia, no. 124

A philosopher who was surprised in the act was asked what he was doing.  He replied quite coolly: ‘I am planting a man,’ not blushing at being discovered at that any more than if he had been discovered planting garlic.

~ Montaigne, Apology for Raymond Sebond

It’s curious (though irrelevant) to note that both planting a man and eating garlic are enough to temporarily ban a person from participation in the mysteries of several religions.  An act or period of cleansing is required.  More secular doctrine only recommends that tooth brushing precede the one while following the other.


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Marginalia, no.112

Chrysippus used to say that a philosopher will turn a dozen somersaults in public, even without breeches, for a dozen olives.

~ Montaigne, Apology for Raymond Sebond

Proof that inflation isn’t a constant, or that we live in a golden age of philosophy.

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Marginalia, no.106

Every other man spoke a language entirely his own, which he had figured out by private thinking: he had his own ideas and peculiar ways.  If you wanted to talk about a glass of water, you had to start back with God creating the heavens and earth; Abraham, Moses and Jesus; Rome; the Middle Ages; gunpowder; the Revolution; back to Newton; up to Einstein; then war and Lenin and Hitler.  After reviewing this and getting it all straight again you could proceed to talk about a glass of water.  ‘I’m fainting, please get me a little water.’  You were lucky even then to make yourself understood.

~ Saul Bellow, Seize the Day

Montaigne somewhere reminds us that “we can misuse only things which are good.”  Language is misused for the same reason most things are: because the pleasures of bad grammar beat the pleasures of good.  I wonder if the abuses of language don’t generally tend toward solipsism, the temptation to isolate oneself or to push others away.  You may end up incomprehensible to anyone but yourself, of course, but masturbation has always been a private pastime.


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Novelistic Imprecision

Philosophical exactitude is not required of novels, though novels are by nature philosophical.  Precise theories and grand conclusions are suspect in works of fiction in the same way they are suspect in real life: too strictly adhered to they’re symptomatic of willful delusion or at least wishful thinking.  But personhood and experience (being this thing rather than that -and knowing it-, and suffering change over time) are the stuff of novels, just as they’re the stuff of every human life –and these defy systematization.  If there is a final synthesis beneath it all, it tends to elude us, or the certainty of it does.

Perhaps that’s why among philosophers I prefer Montaigne to Spinoza, for example.  Spinoza is undoubtedly the more precise and systematic thinker and his scope is broader than Montaigne’s, but Montaigne is no less keen an observer of human nature while also being an appreciator of those things that don’t lend themselves so easily to system.   Spinoza’s perspective (with faint irony, perhaps) is godlike: all things fall under his gaze, and he is not surprised.  Montaigne has the spirit of a novelist, and his view is the more human: he is surprised by everything.

In Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes writes that “Memory is identity.”  Being a positive statement, it sounds more philosophically definitive than Joseph Butler’s contention (uttered 250 years earlier in response to Locke) that “Memory may reveal but cannot constitute personhood.”  Both are right.  Like Gregory Peck in Spellbound, Barnes’ amnesiac loses his identity along with his memory (“It’s like looking in a mirror and seeing nothing but mirror”).  Despite that loss of memory, however, Butler’s amnesiac is no less himself as a discrete object or package of DNA.  But where Butler, as a theologian and philosopher, describes the view from above, from the perspective of God or science, Barnes as a novelist describes the scene from below, from the perspective of human personhood and experience.

Totalizing schemes of all kinds tend to live only by perpetual expansion, and sooner or later most fall prey to Bonini’s Paradox: in order to accommodate an infinitely diversifying host of disparate facts and observations, they become as unintelligible and unsystematic as the world they want to define. The only perspective natural to us – and the only one finally satisfying – is the philosophically inexact ground-floor view through a smudged window.

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Marginalia, no.78

Witness the elephant who was rival to Aristophanes the grammarian in the love of a young flower girl in the city of Alexandria… They tell also of a dragon in love with a girl, and a goose smitten with the love of a boy in the town of Asopus, and a ram that was suitor to the minstrel girl Glaucia; and every day one sees monkeys furiously in love with women.

~ Montaigne, Apology for Raymond Sebond

Could it really have been every day in sixteenth-century Bordeaux that one saw monkeys ‘furiously in love’ with women?  To borrow L.P. Hartley’s famous phrase, the past is a foreign country.  And so is France.  Of course, French women are famous lookers, so one can hardly blame the monkeys.  But perhaps Montaigne had in mind local men who were uncommonly grabby and hairy.

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There is an abecedarian ignorance that comes before knowledge, and another doctoral ignorance that comes after knowledge: an ignorance that knowledge creates and engenders, just as it undoes and destroys the first.

~ Montaigne, Essays I, 54

If ignorance is always our essential condition, some forms of it are only achieved by long study.  Today I congratulate my baby brother who this past weekend was awarded his PhD and so has quite literally graduated into that doctoral ignorance which is the crown of worldly knowledge.  May it rest lightly on his head and be for him a blessed second childhood full of fresh wonder and curiosity.

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